FARS vs. Elevators: The Choice is Obvious, Part 2

By Capt. Mike Gagliano (Seattle Fire Department) and BC Brian Kazmierzak (Penn Township Fire Department)

In part one of this series we evaluated the impact of time on elevator and stairwell operations at high-rise fires. We recommend you go back and peruse part one as it contains some foundational material upon which this section of the series will be built.

For Part 2, we’ll shift the focus from the impact of time and look at manpower and reliability as it pertains to using elevators vs. FARS for air supply. As in the first article, there is simply no comparison or equivalency between the two. Elevators are a late stage air solution. FARS is the only early stage solution.


What’s your body count?

There is no way to exaggerate the impact that insufficient staffing has on an emergency scene. We cringe at times when reading after-action reports or strategic models that seem to imply a maximum amount of staffing in their conclusions. To count on optimum staffing before and during a fire is Monday morning quarterbacking at its absolute worst. The bottom line is that you get who shows up based on numerous factors including your base staffing, ongoing alarms, traffic, weather, mutual aid resources and a host of other variables that are not fully within your control. Stated very simply: You get what you get.

During a recent presentation on FARS, the department hosting the class responded to a query about their initial response to a high-rise fire with the following reply: We’d have two engines, staffed with 2 members each, on scene within the first 3-5 minutes. Additional help would be available within 10 minutes and we’d expect another 8-10 firefighters. If you start filling in the various assignments needed for a fire of this magnitude it becomes readily apparent how quickly you run out of members to fill the needed jobs. Now, add in the challenge of having those limited resources figure out how to transport sufficient air for resupply when the need is a half a football field or higher in the air. They will not have the air they need even if the elevators are working. That is the difference between late stage and early stage air. With elevators or the stairwell as your option, you won’t have air for replacement for a long time. With FARS, it is immediate and does not depend on the use of your initial limited manpower to fulfill that function.

In larger departments, the incident commander can bring more resources to the scene but will still be limited by the initial chokepoint of getting air to those who need it. The first assigned crews are working to get information on fire location, moving hose and other equipment and dealing with occupants. How many of your actual high-rise fires have put a priority on getting air bottles to floor 10 in the early stages of the fire? And even those departments that are trying to address this deficit recognize that air replenishment will still be a slow, later stage process. The need to “bring your own air” automatically puts the first responding crews in the position of having to forgo taking other necessary equipment because they are now lugging bottles. Air bottles are not easy to carry on flat ground much less up the stairs or into elevators with other firefighters and their equipment. Like everything, we can make it work. Just don’t live under the delusion that it will be simple or quick. It is a late stage option and one that is rendered unnecessary and obsolete by adding FARS to the stairwell.

And remember, all of this discussion is based on the assumption that the elevator is operating and continues to operate while the firefighters are using them. Let’s take a look at that for a moment.


Breakdown dead ahead

Elevators have become very safe in regard to the thing that scares us the most: rapid falling. Current elevators are engineered with numerous fail safes that make it exceedingly unlikely you’ll ever experience rapid descent. That’s awesome, but comes with some concessions. These include things like overload sensors, safeties, brakes and governors that can immobilize the elevator. Great under normal circumstances, but not so nice when you’ve filled the car with firefighters, equipment or your initial air supply.

Fully loaded firefighters look for access to elevator

It’s important to remember that elevators are just like everything else in the world — they are controlled by a computer and electronics. Water, high heat, smoke, seismic activity (earthquake) etc. all cause issues for elevators just like they would for any other computer. Even though we only ride the elevator to two floors below the fire, all it takes is something to get shorted out and now we have major problems.

As we attempt to fill the elevator with fully equipped firefighters, lots of equipment and a sense of urgency based on the fire above us, it doesn’t take a genius to see the problems coming:

  • Too much weight in the car tripping the overload sensor
  • Too much side-to-side movement causing an alignment problem and stopping the car
  • Seismic activity will shut down elevators
  • Physical damage to the panel from firefighters/tools
  • Smoke/heat in the shaft tripping the power shunt and stopping the car
  • Water in the shaft or impacting electronic components of the system
  • Defects in the system that existed prior to our arrival
  • Occupants trapped trying to use the elevator inappropriately for escape

And the beat goes on and on and on…

Fire departments respond to stalled elevators all the time and these are not in buildings on fire or filled with numerous occupants desperately trying to get out. As mentioned in the first part of our series, we rely on elevators as our primary means of air re-supply because it’s typically better than using the stairs. That is a long ways off from being a desirable option or one we continue to feature when there is a better option. Firefighter Air Replenishment Systems (FARS) gives the fire service an option that meets the needs that actually exist at high-rise fires.


Responding in…

Let’s return to our crews from earlier who have just arrived at a rocking high-rise fire. Whether the initial crews are staffed with 2 or 4, they are going to have limited hands for numerous jobs for a long time. As lobby control is established, imagine if the air problem was not a problem. Instead of spending the enormous amount of time, resources and energy it will take to figure out how to get cumbersome bottles up to the staging floor, with FARS the air is already in place. The crews can focus on their tactics and getting necessary equipment moved to the fire knowing that they have air in the stairwell. Should the elevators fail or be determined unsafe, the air is still available in the stairwell. The extra burden of climbing the stairs will be made much less of a problem as air is available all the way up. Should firefighters or occupants get trapped in the elevator, air is available immediately in the stairwell to assist rescue operations. FARS answers one of the most challenging issues you face at large structure fires: early stage air.

Firefighters refill in the stairwell using FARS. (Chris Hardy photo)


The beat doesn’t have to go on and on…

As a part of the overall strategic and tactical plan, elevators and stairwells play a significant and necessary role. But they cannot be counted on to provide the early stage air that is necessary for the crews that will be quickly depleting their initial air supply due to the arduous nature of these fires. All operations involving elevators and stairwells, with actual fire conditions, will result in later stage air delivery. Please recognize that. Acknowledge it. So many of our current leaders are responding to our need for air in these difficult buildings with excuse after excuse about why they can’t give us FARS. The answer we need from our leaders should be a steadfast commitment to ensure we have the air and water we need at these difficult fires. Standpipes are the best answer for water. FARS is the best answer for air. It’s time to make that happen.

In part 3 of our series we’ll focus on the inadequacy of elevators as an equivalency to FARS and how political and business lobbyists confuse the issues and work to eliminate the implementation of this crucial technology in the large buildings that truly need them.


Mike Gagliano has thirty years of fire/crash/rescue  experience with the Seattle Fire Department and the United States Air  Force.  He is the Captain of  Ladder 5 and a member of the Seattle Fire Department’s Strategic Planning  Leadership Group. Captain Gagliano has written numerous fire service  articles, is co-author of the bestselling book Air Management for the Fire  Service and the SCBA chapter of the Handbook for Firefighter 1 & 2 from  Pennwell. He is a member of the Fire Engineering/FDIC Advisory  Board, a Director for the Firesmoke Coalition (Firesmoke.org), on the advisory  board of the UL-Firefighter Safety and Research Institute and teaches across  the country on Air Management, Fireground Tactics, Leadership and Company  Officer Development.  Mike co-hosts the popular Fire Engineering radio  webcast “The Mikey G and Mikey D Show” and partners with his wife Anne  (Firelife.com) to teach on strategies for developing and maintaining a strong  marriage/family.

Brian P. Kazmierzak, EFO, CTO is the Chief of Training for the Penn Twp. Fire Dept. in Mishawaka, IN. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration from Southern Illinois University and serves as the Director of Operations for www.FireFighterCloseCalls.com and the Webmaster for www.ModernFireBehavior.com. Brian was the recipient of the 2006 F.O.O.L.S. International Dana Hannon Instructor of the Year Award, the 2008 Indiana Fire Chiefs Training Officer of the Year Award Recipient and the 2011 ISFSI/FDIC George D. Post Fire Instructor of the Year. In addition, Brian completed the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program in 2006, and is a CPSE credentialed Chief Training Officer serves as a 2nd Vice President for the ISFSI and was on the UL FSRI PPV Research Study Panel.  Brian has been a student of the fire service since 1991.


Standpipes are the best answer for water. FARS is the best answer for air.

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